What GMs new to PbtA (Apocalypse World Engine) don’t know
Following the release of the free City of Mist Starter Set, I’ve been getting the usual questions from GMs on how to run games based on the Apocalypse World Engine, also known as games Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA). The common chafe for GMs transitioning to PbtA isn’t that now they’re called the MC’s (Master of Ceremonies); rather, it’s about initiative and specifically when do they as MCs get to act. “But, there is no initiative roll?” “So when do my NPCs attack?” “How come I never get to roll for my moves?”
PbtA games are designed differently than games that try to mechanically simulate the imagined reality; instead, they focus on the story (which can nonetheless be very realistic). Taking that narrative perspective, the MC, the Threats/Dangers, and the MCs moves are all there to make the story more interesting (challenging, stimulating, and well, complicated) for the PCs. The story is propelled by the PCs’ actions, so most of the time it doesn’t matter which player gets to go first; the conditions in which their character is operating are more important. If someone wants to act before someone else or before something happens, that can be reflected as a move in and of itself.
Most GMs new to PbtA games quickly get the hang of this, though. What new MCs really miss are the numerous points of action available to them in a PbtA game. They end up taking action only when players fail their rolls and that often breaks the game’s balance. Here are the moments in the game where MCs can act:
When a player rolls a miss (6 or less). Most PbtA noobs know this. PbtA games are designed so that when a player fails a roll, it doesn’t end with just a shrug and ‘tough luck’ – it really hurts. Almost all player moves do not describe the 6 or less outcome because this is the MC’s turn to blast the PC with MC moves, which can be (1) narratively adding complications (like introducing a new threat to the PCs), (2) inflicting damage or conditions upon the PCs, or (3) activating the Threat/Danger moves or custom moves.
When a move stipulates the MC has a choice. I have seen some new MCs resolve a move while completely ignoring their choices, effectively breaking the game and making the PCs way too powerful. An MC choice usually appears when the player scores 7-9 on a roll and the MC gets to choose a complication, either from a list or open-endedly. Since 7-9 is statistically the most common result, it represents a success mixed with complication, or in other words, a situation where the PC partly got what he or she wanted but had to pay for it somehow. Not using the MC choices breaks the balance of the game by treating 7-9 results like 10+. Furthermore, these choices usually help you develop the story further using genre tropes, so you end up missing out on what PbtA does best.
When a player forgoes options in a move. This is the most unknown of the MC’s points of action. When players have to choose options in player moves like Go Aggro (Apocalypse World) or Hit With All You’ve Got (City of Mist), they always have to forego some of the options. If they forego the defensive option (e.g., “You take cover or secure a superior position…” in Hit With All You’ve Got), the MC can choose to inflict damage upon them when describing the move resolution. Other options not chosen also allow the MC to act, e.g. if the player doesn’t choose “There’s no collateral damage…” or “You hold the target’s attention, if possible.”, the MC can complicate things by describing the disadvantageous outcome of not controlling the collateral damage or not keeping the target focused on the PCs. Similarly to the above point, not taking this opportunity breaks the balance of the game, makes the PCs too powerful, and denies your story of many entertaining / nerve-wracking developments.
At any time you want to drive the story forward. While this is not specifically explained in many PbtA games, most experienced GMs naturally make moves when they feel the timing is apt. As an MC, one of your jobs is to control the pace of the story by starting and concluding scenes, introducing new threats, describing how NPCs and the environment respond to the PCs etc. You do not have to wait for an explicit invitation from the game to introduce a complication. If, for example, your villain has an ace up their sleeve, such as a new sidekick/horrible weapon/unexpected escape plan, you can roll it out without waiting for a failed roll simply by chiming in between player moves. This keeps the tension building even if the PCs are rolling well and it makes the characters’ lives not boring, as one Vincent Baker once suggested. Having said that, it should be noted that the MC’s ‘hard’ moves, such as inflicting damage, are reserved to failed rolls only, so you do have some constraints.
I hope these points clarify a bit the style of GMing unique to PbtA games. What do you think? Which one of these points of action do you use in your PbtA games and which are you going to try out? Are there any others I missed? You’re welcome to share your thoughts in the comments.